History

In the Wild Country
The Mysterious Bridge

A Trek into
An Unknown Tropical Gorge

Photographs and Text by John Todd, Jr.

8. The Mysterious Bridge in the Jungle (I wondered how it got there)...

Map of the Area

Looking for Evidence of the Jesuits Along the Camino Real
It seems like I am always searching for something. Maybe it's the fun of looking for people and places that are now forgotten or abandoned. It's also good to have the time to make these short trips into the past. Plus it isn't far from Veracruz and not that hard to get to.

Many of the very old roads in Mexico are no longer in use. This part of the Jesuit Trail was going to be a more of a challenge than just going to a museum or the library. Over the years, this route had been bypassed for an easier way to get from the mountains to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

Perhaps this is the way ALL the early roads looked. I was curious and wanted to see it and feel it for myself, and perhaps I would find some remnants of the early Jesuits and their sheep raising ranch somewhere along this remote and forgotten section of the Camino Real, or maybe it would just be a remote country trail that led nowhere.

What made it different was the story I'd heard about a majestic bridge at the bottom of a tremendous gorge. How it got there was anybody's guess. I wanted to see it for myself.

This is the story of my search for the lost bridge in the jungle.

A Closer Look
A Safari into the Wild Country
During my first visit to the Hacienda el Coyol during the dry season in late May, I had heard about a very old bridge over the canyon where the Camino Real crossed the Panoaya River.

The Panoaya River is one of the tributaries above the Paso de Ovejas River that eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexico at Antigua.

From a distance, it looked a huge gorge on the contour map it looked like it must have been at least 250 meters in depth.
At My Disposal
Preparations
In the weeks leading up to the trip, I'd talked to a lot of people who knew the area and they told me that it was not an easy trip down into the canyon to find the bridge.

They also said that we could ride horses or mules to get there.

A lot of people enjoy walking trips through the countryside, and besides, I wanted to be closer to the ground.

It´s where you can see a lot more of the details of plant and animal life.
Muddy Camino Real
You also never know what other things you'll find.

Out of Shape for the Trip
After living a city life for so long, I knew I wasn´t in any kind of physical shape to ride a horse, or even a donkey, straight down 250 meters into the steep canyon.

After thinking about it for awhile, I decided it would be better for me to walk on foot.

I talked to some of the real trekkers about walking boots and thick socks. Others told me to take plenty of water along.
Our Safari Group
In the end, I figured I would just wear my comfortable tennis shoes, and take my time to enjoy the walk through the quiet countryside.

On the map it didn't look too far anyway.

So, I planned to follow up behind the group at my own pace.

We would have all afternoon.

The Mystery of a Bridge in the Jungle
Don Gerardo, said the bridge was a magnificent structure.
The Beginning
When he was younger, he and some of the other cowboys on the ranch would ride horses four or five hours over to dances at San Martín Tlacotepec.

The dances were fun and afterwards they would ride back over the bridge at 4 o´clock in the morning half lit from aguardiente.

He said they liked to see the sparks fly from their horseshoes on the old cobble stones of the bridge in the dark of the night.

Yet the mystery is that nobody knew why the bridge was built, or when it was built.

For me, the mystery was why was it built in such a remote area?

When someone mentions a mystery, I become interested.

It would be an interesting trip for another Sunday and an excuse to come back for another visit with the people at the hacienda. They were fun people to be with.
Marcial and his Machete
The Rains Would Soon Come
Back in May, when we talked about the bridge, it was the end of the dry season, and if I waited any longer, the rains would begin and the area would become a jungle and because of the dense foliage, it might be harder to see what was really there.

In the meantime, I got busy on some other projects, time went on, and the monsoon rains came.

Over the weeks, the bridge in the jungle was still in the back of my mind and mentally I was always making mental preparations for the rough trip whether it rained or not.

For me, it was going to be like an African safari into the unknown wild country where few people had ever been, or at least few of my friends had ever heard about. Mentally, I was ready to go.

The Dog Days of Summer
Normally in Veracruz, around mid August there is a lull in the rains when the clouds build up but it doesn't rain much.The people call this short season, "La Canícula" and probably refers to the Dog Days of August.
Preparing a Walking Staff
Along the coast, close to the Gulf of Mexico, it didn´t rain, but closer to the cool mountains, I suspected that it still rained.

That might be a problem with deep potholes in the dirt roads we would have to drive through to get to the Hacienda El Coyol to meet don Gerardo who knew the way.

Now is the Best Time
However, on Sunday in August, my friend Rodrigo, Don Gerardo´s nephew in Xalapa, was on vacation from school and had the time, and we decided to make arrangements for the trip whether it rained or not.

Now would be the best time, rain or shine.

Early Sunday morning, I picked up Marcial Ochoa in Paso de Ovejas and we drove the Camino Real to the Hacienda el Coyol.

When we got there Don Gerardo and the people at the ranch were waiting for us and greeted us enthusiastically.
Opening up El Camino Real
We were ready to go on our safari, so we piled Don Gerardo´s kids, Rodrigo, Marcial into the Suburban and off we went to the nearby village of Dos Caminos where we picked up the Camino Real and the road down into the canyon.

A Special Hat for the Safari
Don Gerardo said, "You´ll need a hat", so he loaned me one of his used hats.

When a man puts on a hat, his personality seems to change.

With Don Gerardo´s hat, I felt I looked like John Wayne!

In spite of what I knew would be a tough walk that would be easy for John Wayne, I knew I´d do OK.

After Dos Caminos, the road became muddy and there were more muddy ruts, but Don Gerardo´s Suburban slipped and slid through the rough spots without any problems.

Soon the road narrowed and we pulled up in front of a group of small thatched huts.
Some Easy Stretches
Don Gerardo knows everybody and he asked the lady who came out if Pedro was there.

"No", she said, "but he would be back after while."

"Fine," Don Gerardo said, "would it be OK to park the car there while we walked down to the bridge."

She said, "Everything will be OK here."

Along the Old Camino Real
At that point we piled out of the car, and the Don Gerardo´s kids went trooping off down the trail ahead of us to discover what was down the Camino Real.

Forward Ho!
The Green Camino Real
On My Own
Nobody Would Get Lost
They couldn´t get lost because there was only one trail, and the made enough noise to scare away any snakes or any other wild life.

After walking through some of the muddy ruts in the trail, dodging the pools of water from last nights rain shower, Don Gerardo asked Marcial to look for a small sapling.

Marcial had a machete and cut a slender sapling that was just right.

Now I had something that looked like a tall walking stick that would help when stepping through the muddy areas.
The Camino Real Narrows
Through the Lush Vegetation
As we walked through the plants sometimes there was a smell of spices, like mint, or at other times it was more like a sour medicine.

Don Gerardo went along telling me the names of the medicinal plants that are used for healing teas.

While we walked along, I was struggling to remember what I'd studied from my college botany class, and realized how much better it was to be out of the classroom and into the field where you can see these plants in person.
"Mala Mujer"
I guess I am more comfortable in the field rather than in the classroom.

Don Gerardo told us that his father had taught him a lot about the plants in the area.

"Mala Mujer"
Every once in a while, Don Gerardo would stop and show us some of the different plants.

Some were good for stomach ailments, and others were to make special teas.
Ferns and Flowers
"Be careful of this one, said Don Gerardo. It's called "Mala Mujer". It's poisonous." "Mala Mujer" means "Evil Woman."

With a name like that, I wondered what it did.

He said that if you touch it, it makes you itch. Then blisters show up.

When the blister breaks the itching gets worse, and you have to go to the doctor.

"Is it like poison ivy?" I asked.

"It's worse than that," he said.

In looking at the leaves, it didn't look like any poison ivy I'd ever seen, but I realized that the plants I was looking were probably local to this area.

At other times there were beautiful flowers and bromeliads I´d never seen before.
A Glimpse of the River Down Below
I couldn´t remember all the names. That's probably why I didn't take more botany classes in college

Marcial went ahead with his machete chopping at the recent overgrowth.

As we followed the old Camino Real down the steep mountain trail it became lush with vegetation.

Don Gerardo told me that in spite of the rainy season, the weather doesn´t change much here.

My pace was so slow that everyone went ahead and finally left me to walk alone.

After awhile, I felt like a shepherd, and know what the early Jesuit friars must have been like as they walked this same road in the month of August several centuries before.

After awhile we stepped aside as a group of men with 4 or 5 burros carrying 30 gallon metal jugs on either side of the burros.
First Glimpse
Don Gerardo told me the people were from Dos Caminos and they were carrying water for their homes.

"Water is very scarce in this area and the wells have to be deep."

"They make this walk several times a day," he said.

Somehow the road didn´t seem to be so difficult for me to walk this one time on a Sunday afternoon.

I am not a fast walker and enjoy looking at things as I walk along.
The Sky Through Rain Forest
Soaked by a Passing Shower
The weather was clouding up, and it looked like rain, but no one seemed concerned.

For now, we would just let it rain. They told me it would be just a passing shower, and we'd be dry in a minute.

The trail was beautiful and the weather was pleasantly cool so if it rained a little, it wouldn´t be bad enough to dash back to the car. I figured I was too far along the trail to turn back now. I wasn´t going to let the rain stop me now.

As I continued to walk along at my own pace, it began to rain. It was a gentle shower with no wind.

After awhile I was soaked, and the rain stopped.
Tropical Plants
I imagined everyone up ahead was soaked, too, but it didn´t seem to make much difference, because soon the sun would come out and we would be dry again.

At times the trail became very steep, and you had to pick your way, walking rock by rock down the steep horse trail.

Now I knew why this road was probably abandoned. A stage coach would never make it.

From time to time, I could catch a glimpse of the river down below, but it was still a long way to go.

Sometimes I would stop and rest for a moment looking at the unknown plants around me.

I wished I'd had my college botany book with me. Back then botany was boring, and now it was different. I'll bet I was looking at some plants that nobody in the outside world had ever seen.

There was a special unique orchid called the Orquidea Acazónica that only grew in the gorge around that village, and for a moment I thought I might find a tropical orchid they could name after me.
River Stones in the Trail
Watching for the Cobble stones
Don Gerardo told me that when you get close to the bridge, you would begin to see some cobble stones.

By now the trail was really steep on the way down and I had thoughts of what it was going to be like on the way back up to where we'd parked the car.

But I banished those thoughts, and continued walking, rock by rock.

I was thankful for my walking staff, and at times, I thought about what this trek must have been like for the Jesuit friars with a herd of sheep on the way to Paso de Ovejas.

I realized that with each step I was getting a little closer to the bottom of the gorge and that I would soon see the bridge.

After awhile, I could begin to hear the kids frolicking in the water below.
The Cobble Stones Straight Down
Not Much Further
Now I knew it wasn't much further to go.

As I rounded a bend, I began to notice what looked like some round river rocks placed in the road in a special way.

This must be the beginning of the cobble stones that Don Gerardo had told me about.

Soon there were more cobble stones and I realized I was on the home stretch to the bridge.

Because they were still wet from the rain, they were slippery and you had to watch your step.

But, at last I was there at the magnificent bridge in the jungle! The walk had been worth it!

At the same time, I didn't dare think about the trip back up the mountain, and decided to just enjoy the next hour or two exploring the details around the bridge and enjoying being with my friends on the river next to a monster of a bridge.

El Puente en la Selva

The Bridge in the Jungle
The Bridge in the Jungle
View from the Bridge
Exploring Around the Bridge
When I met up with the group again under the bridge, Don Gerardo said,

"Let's take a look from the top of the bridge."

We walked up the embankment to the bridge.

Because it was the rainy season, the green plants covered the cobble stones.

We looked down on a group of students swimming in one of the pools.

At the other end of the bridge was a monument, so we went to take a closer look.
A Cross Dated 1896
Old Mysteries
On the other side of the bridge was an old concrete cross and we walked over to take a look.

The bridge was very old, and we were looking for something that might show us when the bridge was built.

From my research in the archives at Paso de Ovejas, I knew this had been the river crossing since the year 1600 when the Camino Real was approved by the King of Spain.

What we were looking at was the latest addition.

While the kids were splashing around in the cool waters, Don Gerardo said,

"Let me show you something over here."

On the north side of the bridge was a very old cross festooned with colored paper perhaps left over from el Día de la Santa Cruz, or the Day of the Holy Cross on the 3rd of May.
A Cross Dated 1896
We went in for a closer look, and saw the day was April 26, 1896.

It was a fairly "recent" addition.

Along with the expensive cobble stone work on either side of the bridge and the bridge itself that looked like a modified aqueduct design, we wondered why anyone would have gone to the expense in time and money to build this structure so far from civilization.

This was the mystery of this majestic bridge.Who had built it and why?
Old Railing
Profile
Profile
A Magnificent Old Structure
Later, don Gerardo, Marcial, and I were sitting around talking about the mysterious bridge in front of us and admiring the details of design and construction.

Other old bridges in the area were in Puente Nacional and Paso de Ovejas, and yet they were washed out in the heavy rains of 1955.

Apparently, this bridge was stronger and wasn't affected over the years.
Cross at the Base
Wild Ferns and Bromeliads
The Base Merges with the Top
The Construction of the Bridge
Several weeks after we made the trip, Rodrigo Barradas sent me this email:

John:

Awhile back I found a book called "Coffee and Society in Huatusco, Veracruz-The Formation of the Coffee Culture (1870-1930)" by Susana Córdova Santamaría.

In the book appears the following information:
The Strong Base
"Another interesting aspect that is reported in the annual reports is related to public works, particularly in road repairs.

In the 1895 report, the cooperation of the citizens for the repair of the Panohaya Bridge, in the Municipio of Tlacotepec de Mejía, it reached 6,108 pesos of the total cost which varied between 8,000 and 10,000 pesos."

Perhaps this information will be useful because it tells us the date that we saw is the latest repairs were done to the original bridge.

Saludos,

Rodrigo

Back in the 1890´s the value of the peso was one US dollar, however the cost of living was very low.

I wonder if the entire cost of the work performed on the bridge was US$6,108?
The Arch and the Jungle
Many times what we see today is the latest overlay of a remodeling job.

Perhaps this was only the cost for the design and construction of the cobble stone work on the road leading up to both sides of the bridge, the cobble stoning of the surface of the bridge, the railings, and the reinforcing of the columns on the bases.

I will add this information to my list of things to clarify with my historian friends about at the Naval Museum.

They have an exhibit of the contract and costs of the building of the Port of Veracruz.

I want to see if these costs will coincide with a structural repair job, or redoing the whole bridge from top to bottom.
Upside Down Plants
Upside Down Plants and Lost Caves
The kids had gone swimming with their clothes on, but Don Gerardo didn't seem to mind.

Later we were sitting around talking and the kids were running around and drying their clothes.

Across the river, I noticed the plants.They were growing upside down!

"Yes," said Don Gerardo, "there are many strange plants in this valley that I've never seen anywhere else."

"There are also many caves where bandits used to hide out when they were on the run."

"Sometimes they had to hide their gold and silver and hid them in the caves.""Some of these treasures have been found, too."

The next time I was in the area, I knew I had to come back some day to do some more exploring.

Adan, Marcial, and the Burro
On the Way Back
By this time Adan had arrived with a burro.

His mother lived at the houses in Dos Caminos where we'd parked the car.

When he got home with his burro she had told him we had come down to see the bridge, and he decided to make the trip on down the Camino Real to be with us.

Adan remarked that he had seen the water so high that the water was flowing over the top of the bridge.
Starting Back Up the Mountain
But the bridge was so strong that it had withstood the high floodwaters.

We thought that perhaps this was one of the oldest intact bridges in the state of Veracruz, and very few people had ever seen it.

Not Like Royal Gorge
The valley or gorge was immensely deep, perhaps not as deep as Royal Gorge in Colorado, but it was close.

At the same time, in the rain forest setting where few people had been, it was peaceful.

We all knew this was a special occasion and felt something here that perhaps the early people had also felt.

The old bridge over the River Panoaya is one of those special places where you want to stay 5 more minutes. But, by now the kids, had gotten out of splashing around in the clear pools in their clothes and they were now dry.
Trees Full of Bromeliads
We knew it was time to leave.

One of the kids asked if he could ride Adan's burro, and off they went back up the trail with one of the kids on the donkey and the others gleefully running behind.

I got up and picked up my staff, and we headed once again for the cobble stones that led back up the canyon through the lush tropical rain forest.

For me it would be a walk for another hour, but nobody was in a hurry.

The long walking stick helped and I rested a lot on the way back.

Colorful Worms
The kids had gleefully ridden back on Adan's donkey, and Don Gerardo and Adan stayed with me as we walked back up the mountain.

Our clothes were almost dry from the brief rain shower.
Colorful Worms
We looked at the bromeliads in the foliage of the trees, and looked at the different tropical plants.

I was also watching out for tropical snakes that might be lurking under a damp rock.

Then off to one side I noticed some bright colors clinging to the trunk of a small tree.

I stopped for a moment to take a look.

They were bright red and black worms about 6 inches long. They looked like little coral snakes all huddled together.

Adam said they were worms climbing up the tree to escape the rains and the wet soil.

He also said they make good bait for fishing in the river.

They aren't harmful and are very slow. He pulled one off the tree so we could take a closer look.I didn't feel like touching one though.

The Walk Back Up the Mountain
The leisurely walk back up the mountain wasn´t as bad as I thought it would be. The kids probably made it in 15 minutes running along side Adan´s galloping burro. This time Don Gerardo stayed with me and we took out time stopping about every 10 minutes to rest for a minute and look at the tropical plants.

Hot Sulfur Springs
On the walk back up the mountain, Don Gerardo told us about a nearby hot spring. The water is so hot that you have to gradually ease into the pool. It smells slightly like sulfur and the pool has curative powers. Sometimes people arrive at the pool crippled up and after 2 or 3 days camping there, they walk away healed. It sounds like a place I want to explore the next time I come to the area.

Back to Civilization
About an hour later, when we reached the huts where the car was parked, Adan had some soft drinks and some chairs ready, and we spent another hour talking about the old bridge and the trail that led down to the river.

Planning the Next Safari
There was no hurry to leave Adan's house and we made plans to get to meet together soon for another safari, and this time we would go looking for the hot springs. I've never seen a curative hot spring and it sounded interesting. Adan and don Gerardo told us to come back any time. They would always be ready to see us again.

Loose Ends
This walk from Dos Caminos was impressive, and now the next thing to do is walk down to the bridge from Tlacotepec de Mejía. This project will wait for another day when I have a little more time.

A Post Script
The following Monday or Tuesday when I was back in Veracruz, I printed up some pictures of the photos I'd taken on the trip to show to my historian friends who know a lot more about the history of the area than I do.

Enthusiastically, I talked to them about my "safari" with Don Gerardo and his family, and showed them the photos of the bridge. They told me they'd never seen anything like that and didn't know it existed. I guess it's my own vanity, but it felt good to hear that.

At the same time, I am still surprised at how many places within an hour or two of the port of Veracruz that nobody knows about except the local people who live in the area close by. old trail that goes from the mountains to Paso de Ovejas.

I wonder what I'll find on the next leg to San Martín Tlacotepec de Mejía further down the trail past the majestic bridge in the jungle. I'll save the rest of the walk for another day and maybe take the walk from there back towards the bridge.

>> Next Stop: Part 9. San Martín Tlacotepec de Mejía >>>

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